Archive for March 2008

Its a boy!

March 29, 2008

Jack Elias Bekins was born yesterday afternoon around 2:30. He was 8 lbs 3 ozs and 20-1/2 in. Everybody is doing well, and big brother Henry is very excited.  

Dotan, Aron, “The Relative Chronology of Hebrew Vocalization and Accentuation,” Proceedings of the American Academy for Jewish Research, Vol. 48. (1981), pp. 87-99.

March 28, 2008

There are three known systems of Hebrew vocalization: the Tiberian, Babylonian, and Palestinian. Interestingly, while we have manuscripts which reflect stages of development in the Babylonian and Palestinian systems, there is no such history for the Tiberian system. At the same time, the Tiberian system achieves a level of uniformity and perfection that far surpasses the other two. In this article, Dotan addresses the question of whether the Tiberian system was invented as a complete system, or whether it was the result of a process of evolution.

Since Wickes’ study, the standard view has been that the vowels and accents were introduced in the 6th or 7th century CE. The points do not seem to have existed before the sealing of the Babylonian Talmud c500 CE, and Jerome mentions that the Jews of his day had no notation for vowels. At the other end, we know of two Masoretes who deal with reading the points from the end of the 8th and early 9th centuries, Pinḥas Rosh HaYeshiva and Asher ben Neḥemiah. Also, Moses ben Asher, from the second half of the 9th century, does not seem to be aware of the origin of the points which implies that they were already rather old.

Dotan suggests that the systems of accentuation and vocalization were originally different systems and that the accent signs preceded the vowel signs. In the Babylonian system, most of the signs are based on small Hebrew letters. For instance, a little ז corresponds to the accent זקף, while a small ו represents the vowel /u/. However, the sign corresponding to דגש, in the Babylonian system דיגשא, is not a small ד, but a small ז. The ד is instead used for the accent דחי, suggesting that the accents were established before the vowel points. There is similar evidence in the Palestinian system which uses dots and strokes, mostly above the line. The vowel signs all consist of two or three dots or strokes, while most of the accent signs are a single dot in various positions around the word again suggesting that the accents were developed first. Further, the earliest Palestinian Bible manuscripts contain mostly accents, with only an occasional vowel sign.

It seems clear then that the accents preceded the vowels in the Babylonian and Palestinian systems. There may also be hints of the same in the Tiberian system. Most of the Tiberian disjunctive accents are supra-linear signs which seem to be a continuation of the Palestinian and Babylonian systems. The Tiberian innovation is the infra-linear system which was introduced with the vowel signs and the conjunctive accent signs (with the exception of קדמא). It stands to reason that in the oral transmission of the text, accents and pauses were harder to preserve than vowels; and therefore, accent signs would have been introduced before vowel signs.

However, if accent signs were introduced before vowel signs, could it be that the it was the vowels which were introduced in the 6th or 7th century CE, but the accents were introduced earlier? Because it has been assumed that the vowels and accents were introduced at the same time, it seems that no one has investigated this question. In fact, both Jerome’s statements and the silence of the Talmuds are related to the נקודות, the vowel points. In fact, the Talmud refers several times to טעמים, the accents, but this was never taken to be written accents.

If indeed the accents are earlier, then Dotan suggests that the relationship between Hebrew and Syriac Masorah should be re-examined. It may not be the case that the Syriac signs are the earlier. Regardless, it is very likely that the Tiberian system was constructed gradually. Not only did the accents precede the vowels, but it seems that the accentuation system itself was developed in several phases.

Is Peter Machinist hot?

March 25, 2008

Apparently not. And don’t ask me how I ended up on that page…

Did the Phoenicians circumnavigate Africa?

March 25, 2008

I received this link to this story from Jack Sasson’s Agade list about a rich English guy who wants to “prove” that the Phoenicians could have circumnavigated the continent of Africa for Necho II:

Philip Beale, 47, has commissioned the building of a replica Phoenician ship that he plans to sail around the continent with a crew of 20. Their 10-month expedition sets off in August and will follow the route that seafaring Phoenician merchants are said to have taken more than 2,500 years ago.

Such a trip is recorded in Herodotus 4.42. For more of the details check out this Livius page. This is my favorite kind of TV science – let’s prove our theory is plausible by recreating the details in modern times. Well, almost all the details: 

Apart from navigation and communications equipment, Mr Beale’s crew will have none of the comforts of a 21st-century vessel…

To be fair, Beale is probably mostly interested in the adventure of it all, but I am sure someone is going to film it and present this as “evidence”.  

Holy crapoly – CDA in PDF

March 19, 2008

Well, it only took one day for my RSS subscription to What’s New in ABZU to pay off. Cambridge has made the Concise Dictionary of Akkadian by Black, George, Postgate, et al available as a 5.5 MB, searchable PDF file. 

What’s new in ABZU

March 19, 2008

My colleague Charles at Awilum just posted about an interesting new thesis on ships and shipbuilding in Ancient Mesopotamia that he found recently on ABZU. I browse ABZU every once in a while, but it has been some time since I spent any significant amount of time there. Tonight I found this link to an RSS feed that keeps track of new items as they are added, which seems quite handy. I also noticed an interesting dissertation on Mood and Modality in Hurrian that I can’t wait to read :). 

Dobbs-Allsopp, FW, “Biblical Hebrew Statives and Situation Aspect,” Journal of Semitic Studies XLV/1 (Spring 2000), 21-53.

March 18, 2008

In this paper, Dobbs-Allsopp discusses the Biblical Hebrew stative in respect to situation aspect. Specifically, he observes that stative verbs do not always merely describe a state, but they can be used to express dynamic and change-of-state meanings as well. This is not an anomaly, but follows from the fact that while statives do not inherently contain a dynamic component, such a constituent can be added. However, the reverse is not true – an “action” verb is inherently dynamic and no constituent can cancel this to create a stative meaning.

Aspectuality is compositional in nature. That is, there are several parameters which contribute to the overall “temporal contour” of a situation. The primary two parameters are labeled variously as aspect and aktionsart, grammatical aspect and lexical aspect, or as Dobbs-Allsopp prefers, viewpoint aspect and situation aspect.

Following Comrie, viewpoint aspect indicates how an author/speaker “views” a situation and is most commonly divided into perfective and imperfective. Viewpoint aspect also tends to be marked formally by the verbal morphology.1 A perfective form is used to describe a situation as a single whole with both endpoints in view, while an imperfective form makes explicit reference to the internal temporal structure of the situation without reference to the beginning or end.

Situation aspect then further specifies the internal temporal structure. Because this is largely related to the semantics of an individual verbal stem, it tends not to be generalized and marked formally by an inflectional pattern. However, the Semitic languages, including Biblical Hebrew, do maintain an inflectional difference between stative and “non-stative” verbs. Dobbs-Allsopp describes the second class as “events” (they can also be called “fientive”). This division between states and events is the most basic in Vendler’s list, with events then being sub-categorized as activities, accomplishments, and achievements.2

Therefore, Dobbs-Allsopp suggests that it is situation aspect which can help explain how Biblical Hebrew statives can be shifted to express not only a stative meaning, but also dynamic and change of state meanings. Specifically, the cognitive features telicity, durativity, and dynamicity are the most relevant. Telicity is the existence of a goal, durativity is the characteristic of a state/event to last for an interval of time, and dynamicity is associated with change and activity.

Like aspect in general, situation aspect seems to be compositional in nature. This means that it does not only depend on the semantics of the verb itself, but also other parameters within the clause, sentence, etc. Thus telicity, durativity, and dynamicity may either be inherent in the verbal stem, or they may be contributed to the verb through objects, prepositional phrases, etc. A common example can be given with the verb ‘to run’:

a) Will ran.

b) Will ran a mile.

c) Will ran to the playground.

In a) the running is unbounded – we know nothing about the beginning or end of the action. However, the addition of a direct object in b) and of a prepositional phrase in c) gives the goal of the running which shifts the situation aspect from an activity to an accomplishment.

Here Dobbs-Allsopp largely follows Mari Bromman Olsen (see in describing the effects of the combinations of telicity, durativity, and dynamicity:

Privative Lexical Aspect Features3

Sit. Aspect Telic Dynamic Durative Examples
State + know, have
Activity + + run, paint
Accomplishment + + + destroy
Achievement + + notice, win

In other words, a state is purely durative, while an activity is both durative and dynamic. Adding a goal to an activity (as in b) and c) above) adds telicity, which shifts it to an accomplishment. An achievment is dynamic and telic, but not durative. An event is therefore marked for dynamicity and can never be shifted to a stative meaning. However, by adding a dynamic constituent, Biblical Hebrew statives can be shifted to events. For example, D-A suggests the following pairs of sentences:

2Sam 7:22 ‏ עַל־כֵּ֥ן גָּדַ֖לְתָּ אֲדֹנָ֣י יְהוִ֑ה

Therefore, you are great O Lord God…

1Sam 2:26 ‏ וְהַנַּ֣עַר שְׁמוּאֵ֔ל הֹלֵ֥ךְ וְגָדֵ֖ל וָט֑וֹב

And the lad Samuel grew greater and greater and better and better…

In the first sentence, גדול is clearly stative, however in the second sentence the durative adverbial use of הלך adds a sense of progression suggesting that it is an activity. A direct object can sometimes shift a stative to an accomplishment:

Is 24:5 ‏ וְהָאָ֥רֶץ חָנְפָ֖ה

And the earth was defiled

Jer 3:9 ‏ וַתֶּחֱנַ֖ף אֶת־הָאָ֑רֶץ

And she defiled the earth

Other constituents which can affect dynamicity are instrumental clauses:

Job 18:6 ‏ א֖וֹר חָשַׁ֣ךְ בְּאָהֳל֑וֹ

The light is dark in his tent

Is 5:30 ‏וָא֔וֹר חָשַׁ֖ךְ בַּעֲרִיפֶֽיהָ

…And the light is darkened by his clouds

Or purpose clauses:

Lev 5:2 ‏וְה֥וּא טָמֵ֖א

…And he is unclean

Ezk 22:3 ‏וְעָשְׂתָ֧ה גִלּוּלִ֛ים עָלֶ֖יהָ לְטָמְאָֽה

(a city) that makes idols to defile itself.

Stative verbs can gain dynamic meaning when they occur as participles:

Dt 23:6 ‏כִּ֥י אֲהֵֽבְךָ֖ יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֶֽיךָ

For the Lord your God loves you

Pr 17:17 ‏בְּכָל־עֵ֭ת אֹהֵ֣ב הָרֵ֑עַ

A friend loves at all times

This shift may be due to the progressive nature of the participle, and it also occurs in the collocation היה + predicative participle.

In addition to shifts toward dynamic meaning, Biblical Hebrew statives also occur with change of state meanings, usually ingressive but also egressive. There seem to be two primary contexts for such a meaning. First is when a stative occurs in a narrative sequence:

Ex 7:18 ‏וְהַדָּגָ֧ה אֲשֶׁר־בַּיְאֹ֛ר תָּמ֖וּת וּבָאַ֣שׁ הַיְאֹ֑ר

Then the fish which are in the Nile will die and the Nile will become foul…

The ingressive meaning occurs because the pragmatic context implies a change of state. The second situation is when the stative is accompanied by a punctiliar frame:

2 Sam 13:36 ‏וַיְהִ֣י ׀ כְּכַלֹּת֣וֹ לְדַבֵּ֗ר וְהִנֵּ֤ה בְנֵֽי־הַמֶּ֙לֶךְ֙ בָּ֔אוּ וַיִּשְׂא֥וּ קוֹלָ֖ם וַיִּבְכּ֑וּ

And when he finished speaking, look, the princes entered, and raised their voice, and began weeping…

Here the stative בכה is inherently marked for durativity. When set in a punctiliar context, ie the moment when he finished speaking, it triggers an ingressive meaning, focusing on the beginning of the action. In other words, the moment of the change of state. Note that this is a pragmatic implicature and not a semantic feature.

In sum, aspect is best viewed as a compositional. There are morphological parameters, but also semantic and pragmatic parameters. For a comprehensive theory of aspect, it is important to consider the contributions of these other parameters beyond verbal inflection (or in reverse, when analyzing the meaning of an inflectional pattern, take care that your reading is not being influenced by such factors beyond the bare verbal morphology).


1. The Slavic languages are paradigmatic, Biblical Hebrew is obviously debated. D-A follows Waltke-O’Connor in seeing the suffix conjugation and the wayyiqtol as perfective, while calling the prefix conjugation “non-perfective” since in the history of the language, due to the dropping of final vowels, several originally separate prefixed forms have fallen together.

2. Vendler’s four categories are the common subdivision of situation aspect, though other categories have been suggested, most notably “semelfactives”.

3. From Olsen, “The Semantics and Pragmatics of Lexical Aspect Features” Studies in the Linguistic Sciences Volume 24, Number 2, Fall 1994, 361-376. What Olsen adds to the discussion is the idea that telicity, durativity, and dynamicity are privative features, not equipollent. This means that they are not binary oppositions [+telic]/[-telic], but rather they are either marked [+telic] or unmarked. Further, features that are inherent in the verbal stem itself cannot be cancelled out by other sentence constituents. For example, a verb that is inherently telic, like ‘to win’, can never describe a state or activity. On the other hand, features that are unmarked in the verbal stem can be marked by other sentence constituents. Therefore a stative can be potentially shifted to an activity or an accomplishment.

Mark Smith’s Bibliography of Hebrew and Ugaritic

March 18, 2008

Chuck Jones posted a comment on my previous post, The mother of all Semitics linguistic bibliographies, reminding me of Mark Smith’s very helpful bibliography of Biblical Hebrew and Ugaritic which can be found on ABZU: for the reminder, and thank you to the University of Chicago for getting so many great resources on-line and freely accessible. 

More Hebrew Bibliography

March 14, 2008

Matthew Anstey has posted a large bibliography of Biblical Hebrew (over 5000 works!). It is arranged by author’s last name, but there is no further categorization making it a bit overwhelming. If you have a certain book or author in mind, but cannot quite remember the title or details, it seems to be an excellent resource. 

New John Cook article in JHS

March 14, 2008

John Cook has a new article in the on-line Journal of Hebrew Scriptures: Cook, John A., “The vav-prefixed verb forms in elementary Hebrew grammar,” JHS Volume 8: Article 3 (2008). I won’t formally summarize the article for my bibliography since it is easily accessed (I love the idea of an on-line, peer-reviewed journal, and I am very happy that JHS has become a successful endeavor).

This article was originally presented as a paper for the National Association of Professors of Hebrew, and it was occasioned by the great increase in the number of elementary Hebrew grammars that have perpetuated the enigmatic description of vav-prefixed verbs as “vav-conversive” or “vav-consecutive”. Cook argues that such a description leaves students with the feeling that Biblical Hebrew is a “strange beast without any parallel among human languages.” The value of a better, linguistically informed, description is that students can appreciate how BH works as a human language rather then seeing it as some ancient puzzle.  

The first part of the paper surveys some of these descriptions, but the second part is the most interesting as he gives some examples from his grammar (co-authored with Robert Holmstedt and available in a preliminary form here).

In previous discussions of the BH Verbal System I have tended to agree with John’s typological/grammaticalization approach. The core opposition of the BH system is the binary morphological opposition of a prefixed verbal form (yiqtol) and a suffixed verbal form (qatal). This opposition originally marked aspect (imperfect/perfect), thus typologically it is best to call it an aspectual system (of course, this can be a misleading label as Randall Buth pointed out that BH does not appear to be an “aspectually sensitive” language, especially in comparison to Greek whose morphology allows the variation of tense, mood, and aspect somewhat independently of each other). From a typological comparison of other such languages, a general trend can be seen of the perfect form also defaulting as a simple past tense, and the imperfect form defaulting as present/future. Over time, as new aspectual forms develop, the older forms begin to be used solely to express tense, and eventually they fall out of use altogether.

At this point, I think it is pretty widely accepted that the prefixed yiqtol form in wayyiqtol is not the same as the imperfect, but rather preserves an older prefixed preterite form that has fallen out of general use. This is supported by the existence of the prefixed preterite iprus in Akkadian, the apparent Canaanite reflexes in the Amarna letters, the negative past tense construction in Arabic, la yaktub, etc. In biblical narrative, the preterite is preserved as the special narrative tense wayyiqtol, and it also appears without the prefixed vav as a preterite yiqtol in classical poetry.

What was interesting to me in this article was the description of waw + suffix conjugation, weqatal. It is common among Semitic languages for the perfect form to also be used to express non-past/modal statements. (Not to confuse things at this point, but if indeed there is a trend for perfect forms to move to preterite forms over time, then perhaps the prefix “jussive” forms which occur both in Hebrew and Akkadian, ie the precative liprus, spun off from the old prefixed preterite at an earlier stage when it was actually a perfect?) Nevertheless, returning to weqatal, EJ Revell has shown that in the prefixed verbal forms, indicative and modal expressions can be distinguished by word order – in modal statements, the verbs consistently appear at the head of the clause. Vincent DeCaen has thus suggested that the vav-prefixed forms, being intrinsically verb-first, are in fact modal conjugations. This explanation does not seem to fit wayyiqtol, but the distribution of weqatal suggests that it is in fact “modal”. Cook suggests this non-indicative use most often marks subordinate clauses.

The pedagogical insight is that wayyiqtol and weqatal should not be treated as a single class of “vav-prefixed” verbal forms. Rather, they are quite distinct from each other. It is easiest to understand wayyiqtol as a special narrative tense, preserving an older preterite form. On the other hand, weqatal is a non-indicative/modal form which derives quite expectedly from the perfect qatal and which is differentiated from indicative statements by its clause-initial position. 


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